Blagojevich prosecutors preparing to rest case; what’s been proved about the former governor?

By Mike Robinson, AP
Monday, July 12, 2010

What have prosecutors proved about Blagojevich?

CHICAGO — Federal prosecutors have spent five weeks showing Rod Blagojevich spewed a river of profanity while lavishing money on his wardrobe and ducking his job as governor of Illinois. But will jurors believe he was a racketeer who schemed to sell or trade Barack Obama’s former U.S. Senate seat for personal gain?

The government plans to rest as early as Tuesday, after presenting a case based heavily on wiretaps in which jurors heard Blagojevich saying he wanted something in return for the seat.

“I’ve got this thing and it’s (expletive) golden — I’m just not giving it up for (expletive) nothing,” Blagojevich plainly says on one of the most-quoted tapes.

But once prosecutors finish, the ousted governor’s defense team is guaranteed to tell jurors that while Blagojevich may have had a vivid imagination, he wasn’t the bad guy prosecutors allege.

“The first thing they do is portray Blagojevich as the buffoon that he is,” says DePaul University law professor Leonard Cavise, who has been on hand for much of the testimony. “They say, look, he has a bad mouth, he has a loose mouth. He spent a lot of time thinking about things other than the state of Illinois. But he’s not a crook.”

Blagojevich, 53, has pleaded not guilty to scheming to get a high-paying job, a Cabinet post or a large campaign contribution in exchange for the appointment to the Senate seat. He also has pleaded not guilty to plotting to use his power as governor to engage in racketeering.

His brother, Robert Blagojevich, 54, has pleaded not guilty to taking part in the alleged Senate scheme and what prosecutors call illegal efforts to pressure two businessmen for campaign contributions.

Prosecutors hope their trump card is evidence that has served the government well in many federal racketeering cases: tape recordings that result in a defendant convicted by his own voice. Jurors have heard dozens of tapes made from FBI wiretaps in November and December 2008, and witness testimony about their meaning.

Former Blagojevich chief of staff John Harris testified that the governor said he had sent word to Obama in November 2008, through labor union leader Tom Balanoff, that he would name Obama family friend Valerie Jarrett to the Senate seat if the new president would name Blagojevich secretary of health and human services.

“So she now knows that she could be a senator if I get health and human services,” Blagojevich is heard saying on one tape.

Harris testified that when the Cabinet post plan seemed to go nowhere, Blagojevich suggested a three-way trade. Blagojevich would name Jarrett to the Senate seat and Balanoff’s union — the Service Employees International Union — would find a position for the governor as head of a labor-oriented political organization, Change to Win.

Washington-based pollster Fred Yang is heard on one of the tapes expressing doubt Blagojevich could get a Cabinet post and urging him to consider one of the lesser administration jobs that “don’t require Senate approval and pay pretty good.”

“Why would I want to do that?” Blagojevich asks.

Yang says it would be “something the president could do for you that would pay a lot of money.” Blagojevich immediately asks: “How much?”

In December 2008, after Jarrett withdrew her name as a possible Senate appointee, Blagojevich speculated about naming U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill. A former state official, Rajinder Bedi, said he told Robert Blagojevich that Jackson supporters could raise a lot of campaign money.

Jurors then heard a tape of Rod Blagojevich telling Yang that by naming Jackson he would receive “tangible political support” and “some of it would be up front.”

The offer includes “specific amounts and all,” Blagojevich is heard saying.

Aside from the tapes, multiple witnesses have testified to alleged corruption on Blagojevich’s part.

Former Illinois Finance Authority director Ali Ata testified that Blagojevich discussed putting him on the state payroll and finally did after he made $50,000 in campaign donations. Top Democratic fundraiser Joseph Cari testified that on an October 2003 plane ride to New York, Blagojevich dangled state jobs and contracts as a possible reward for campaign help.

Former Deputy Gov. Bradley Tusk testified that Blagojevich ordered him to pressure then U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, now White House chief of staff, for campaign money. And Harris said the governor ordered him to threaten to withdraw state aid for sale of the Tribune Co.-owned Chicago Cubs unless Chicago Tribune editorial writers urging his impeachment were fired.

The sheer mass of evidence will have to make an impact on the jury. But Blagojevich’s defense team is headed by Sam Adam Jr., whose dramatic, table-pounding closing argument at R&B star R. Kelly’s child pornography trial preceded a complete acquittal and proved he’s not helpless in the face of tough evidence.

Defense attorneys surely will note that key witnesses such as Harris, Ata and Cari all have pleaded guilty to crimes.

“The defense will say that people who testified against Blagojevich lied to save themselves jail time,” says Ron Safer, a former head of the criminal division of the U.S. attorney’s office who is now in private practice. “They will say something like, politics is horse trading. It may not be pretty but it is reality and it isn’t a crime.”

Blagojevich and his attorneys also have said he would take the stand in his own defense. But many lawyers say it could be a mistake if he were faced with the choice of admitting to crimes or lying, possibly resulting in a stiffer sentence if the governor were convicted.

“It makes testifying extraordinarily precarious and dangerous because the government has so much ammunition,” says Patrick M. Collins, a former federal prosecutor who spearheaded the investigation that sent the state’s previous Gov. George H. Ryan to prison for racketeering and fraud.

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